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27 May 2022 2:23
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  •   Home > News > International

    How the arrival of the Amadea superyacht wedged Fiji between a Russian oligarch and the United States government

    Seizing the opulent superyachts of Vladimir Putin's nearest and dearest is a move designed to cut off the Russian leader from his wealthy friends, but in the case of the Amadea, it's the tiny island nation of Fiji that's wearing the cost.

    Slapping sanctions on some of Vladimir Putin's uber-rich friends is designed to cost them dearly, but in the case of the Amadea superyacht, it's the small island nation of Fiji that is being forced to pay up.

    The 106-metre luxury vessel arrived into Lautoka port in mid-April and has been the subject of legal proceedings, including being the asset in question on a United States seizure warrant.

    Last week, it looked as if the US law enforcement officials on the ground in Fiji were free to sail away with the $450 million superyacht, but a fresh appeal attempt was lodged and will be heard this week. 

    The issue for Fiji is that this very expensive vessel is also very expensive to maintain. 

    Right now, the vessel is in the custody of the Fijian authorities, and according to the public prosecutor, is costing the country more than $FJD1 million ($655,000) a week while legal proceedings drag on. 

    Fiji's Director of Public Prosecution Christopher Pryde said the current stay on the seizure of the Amadea should be lifted for a number of reasons, including the cost of "keeping the yacht" and "to Fiji's international reputation".

    The case of the Amadea has put Fiji in a unique spot — a long way from the war in Ukraine, but wedged firmly between a sanctioned Russian billionaire and the US government.

    The central question

    One detail in the case of the Amadea that has been central to legal proceedings is the question of who actually owns it.

    At the end of the murky trail of shell companies and trusts, which person gets to walk on board the Amadea and call it their own?

    And the answer isn't who that person is believed to be, but rather who can be proven to benefit from the ownership of the vessel in a court of law. 

    The US believes it has evidence that proves sanctioned Russian billionaire, politician and Putin ally Sulieman Kerimov owns the Amadea, but on paper it belongs to an investment firm. 

    That firm has lawyers in Fiji fighting to prevent the US Marshals Service sailing the Amadea into American territory. 

    At the heart of the legal matter is the US seizure warrant. 

    Essentially, the US government asked the Fijian government for help seizing the Amadea and so the public prosecutor requested the US seizure warrant be registered locally, meaning it could be enforced in Fiji.

    That request was granted and, together with the FBI and the US Marshals Service, Fijian law enforcement seized the yacht last week. 

    But then defence lawyers filed an appeal.

    Their position is the question of who owns the Amadea needs to be answered in a Fijian court, before the US warrant can be accepted and the vessel seized. 

    The Fijian public prosecutor believes that question is to be answered in an American court.

    "The issue of ownership and underlying criminal matters giving rise to the US request for the Fijian authorities to restrain the yacht should be decided in the US not in Fiji," Mr Pryde said.

    The Office of the Director of Public Prosecution said Fiji was "merely facilitating a request from the US".

    The case will come before the full bench of the Fijian Court of Appeal on Wednesday.

    And while these technicalities are argued over in Suva, the Amadea is sitting on the other side of Fiji's main island racking up a sizeable public bill. 

    Mr Pryde was in court at the appeal hearing on Thursday and said the matter was costing the Fijian government $US82,000 ($119,000) a day — or more than $FJD1 million a week. 

    "Fiji is responsible for the care of property in its custody and therefore is responsible for the costs in maintaining the Amadea. Once custody of the yacht is handed over to the US, the US will assume the costs," Fiji's Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said in a statement. 

    The Amadea is currently moored at a private wharf in Lautoka behind security gates guarded by the Port Authority. The vessel has been refuelled and in recent photos, appears to have been cleared of personal effects.

    Local media reported the Amadea was also blocking traffic at the Princess Wharf in Lautoka.

    The US government is ready to assume control of the vessel and the associated costs and has previously estimated those expenses to be up to $USD30 million a year. 

    In cases like this, Washington also has the ability to share any proceeds from the eventual sale of assets won in forfeiture proceedings with international partners. 

    Why Fiji?  

    As Russia invaded Ukraine, the Amadea went dark and started its journey across the Pacific, according to the FBI.  

    It sailed from Mexico to Fiji — a straight shot few vessels in the world would be able to manage without refuelling. 

    But with the live lobster tank and helicopter pad on the Amadea, comes a massive fuel tank and the ability to cross oceans at speed.

    The FBI said there was an attempt to prevent the Amadea being seized "almost immediately" after Russia's war began. 

    "Amadea turned off its automated information systems (AIS) on February 24, 2022, almost immediately after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine," the FBI said.

    So, why Fiji? 

    There is some speculation over the intended final destination for the Amadea, but neither of the top-running theories have the vessel staying put in Fiji. 

    The private wharf in Lautoka was likely the best place to refuel and resupply. 

    The vessel's paperwork showed the next destination would be the Philippines, but the FBI believed it was headed to the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok.

    Fiji has had a diplomatic relationship with Russia for more than 50 years. 

    And when the current leaders of Fiji came to power in a 2006 coup, Russia was among the nations that did not impose sanctions on the new government.  

    But despite the Russia-Fiji relationship, any hope the crew had of sailing into friendly waters were quickly dashed. 

    Since its arrival in Fiji, local authorities have been working closely with American law enforcement to take control of the Amadea. 

    Between Russia and the United States 

    Part of the public prosecutor's argument in court this week was that the Amadea matter should be finalised quickly because the country's international reputation was at stake.

    Mr Pryde said there was a cost to "Fiji's international reputation in delaying what should have been a straightforward matter". 

    Despite the fact the yacht is linked to Moscow, registering a foreign restraining order in Fiji is not without precedent.

    "The legal proceedings around the Amadea are not unique and Fiji has registered foreign restraining orders previously through its Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Act," Fiji's Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said in a statement.

    "Fiji has international obligations under the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime." 

    Fiji is arguably in an unenviable position. 

    On one side of this case is a mysterious investment company headquartered in the Cayman Islands, potentially backed by one of the richest men in the world.

    On the other side, is the might of the US government pursuing a warrant issued in a Washington DC court.

    And all of this is playing out while authorities around the globe move against billionaires with ties to Moscow.

    The US Attorney-General and the spokesperson for the White House were quick to claim victory last week when the Amadea was seize by Fijian authorities on behalf of the US.

    Now, the fate of the vessel is back in the hands of the Fijian judiciary; an entity that is hearing a case that has the potential for significant geopolitical implications, while the entire world is watching and the cost to the Fijian people adds up. 

    © 2022 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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